50mm is the generally accepted standard lens made famous by Cartier-Bresson and a litany of photojournalists. Before zoom technology progressed to the point that a fairly reliable kit zoom could be included, a 50mm is generally what would come with most consumer SLR cameras. 50mm is optically simpler than 35mm and closer to the viewing angle of the human eye. And we’re to believe that it’s easier to build a 50mm because of the comparative optical simplicity and the fact that manufacturers have built so many in the past. However as the technology progresses and as the field of photography progresses with it, it’s becoming debatable whether 50mm is the true standard because it’s the quintessential ‘normal’ lens, or simply because so many photographers learned on a 50mm, that we assume it’s standard. It’s in a bit of a chicken and egg situation. It’s a relief really that it’s a fantastic focal length. (As a minor aside, I’m not sure if I’m I picked the lenses I own because I love the focal lengths or I love the focal lengths because I picked the lenses)
When a lot of online resources talk about 50mm lenses, they’re talking about it in terms of your first prime lens. In this instance, however, we’re talking about it in comparison to other standard lenses, namely the 35mm. And compared to a 35mm, a 50 isn’t quite as fast, cheap or sharp as it is compared to a kit zoom or other primes at more extreme focal lengths.
What my 50mm is, is my most reliable lens. It’s a touch sharper than the 35 (equivalent) glued to my x100s and has considerably deeper focus than my 85 1.4. I always start with my 50mm and change lenses from there, because 50mm is kind of in a class of it’s own in terms of viewing angle. Sometimes I use it as a very wide telephoto, sometimes as a very long wide-angle. But really a 50mm is in a class of it’s own, not too wide and not too long that everything just fits.
I think one of the strong points of the 50mm focal length is the way it can be used to isolate single elements without throwing the background out of context entirely.
This is great when you’re just starting out and a lot of your compositions are going to be concerned with figure and later figure against background. The gentle compression and shallow depth of field in 50mm lenses are gentler than wider lenses, which can lose the subject against a complex and potentially busy background. Conversely, the extra compression from longer lenses can cause the subject to bleed into the background without sufficient attention to composition and lighting. 50mm is the sweet spot where your subject pops out from the background both from a comparatively high compression, but also from a comparatively wide angle of view.
Using a comparatively longer 85mm lens, the subject is lost in the background without sufficient attention to lighting.
As a very wide telephoto
One of the reasons I reach for a longer lens is because I want to create an etherial, larger-than-life feeling to the context. And compression and the relative shallow depth of field from a long lens works very well in doing so. Another is to single out the subject against their background, essentially reducing the context of the scene. These effects, albeit subtler, are still present in 50mm lenses. You have to pay attention to your subject and background, and sometimes find ways to emphasise distance, but the beauty of a 50mm is that you’re given much more space with which to do so. Sometimes telephoto lenses are limiting simply because they clash with the physical landscape of your shooting- you may be in a relatively tight room, or you may not be able get the right angle from further back. In these cases the 50mm steps in beautifully.
One day my solution is going to be to stop taking photos in swamps, until then the 50mm will continue to serve me quite well.
As a very long Wide-Angle
Conversely, the 50mm makes a great context lens. Sometimes a wide angle will give you too much context, or the viewing angle will send the background too far away from the subject. In this case, again a 50mm provides a perfect balance between too long and too wide. The 50mm is solidified as a wonderful environmental lens because whilst it can work in tight spaces, it gets you just far enough from your subject as to not be imposing on new clients who may not yet be completely used to the camera’s presence.
Another reason I love the 50mm as an icebreaker lens is because it holds up brilliantly for walking shots. Close enough to keep focus easy, but not so wide that the subjects end up kicking the lens.
It’s worth noting that if you’re willing to spend some time in photoshop you can make one lens even more versatile. Conceptual Fine artist’s like this blog’s long time photographic crush, Sarah Ann Loreth, and David Talley used only 50mm lenses for much of their early work. Using photoshop and multiple exposures to expand the edges of their frame. Interesting aspects of this is that the compression and depth of field from the 50mm are preserved in a wider perspective. Photography can work because of the way it heightens perceptions which are familiar to us. This is a way you can heighten perceptions in regard to photography itself, and to really interesting results.
On a crop sensor camera a 50mm will have a relative viewing angle and compression to that of a 75mm. This is still a really beautiful focal length and one I spent a lot of time in personally. It’s a little saddening actually that there are no 75mm prime lenses in the Nikon lineup. One of the reasons I now tell people to start with a 35mm on a crop sensor, is that 75 really isn’t a normal lens. It’s a tele. And there’s nothing wrong with telephotos, but looking back at my compositions when using it, I was more than a little coddled by a focal length which makes it pretty easy to cut anything extraneous out of your composition. I think this resulted in a few simpler compositions where I could have taken the time to really consider the figure in their space.